LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas lawmakers have begun pre-filing bills in advance of the 2023 legislative session, which begins on Jan. 9.
At the beginning of the week of the Thanksgiving holiday, two bills had been pre-filed by senators and 10 bills had been pre-filed by members of the House of Representatives.
The first two bills filed were Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 1002, which are identical versions of legislation to reform parole laws and require truth in sentencing. They are so-called "shell bills" because at this point they only contain a title and a paragraph that outlines their general purpose.
Public safety will be a major issue during the 2023 session. The legislature is expected to consider proposals to add space in state prisons, particularly for inmates in maximum security units.
Also expected are measures to tighten parole regulations, because of the growth in the number of serious crimes committed by inmates out of prison on parole. Truth in sentencing laws provide jurors with more accurate estimates of the length of prison sentences, and can be written to focus on repeat, violent offenders.
During criminal trials juries may sentence an offender to a lengthy sentence, but he serves only a portion of the original sentence because it gets shortened for good behavior.
In September, the Department of Correction announced that it would release 369 male inmates on parole over 90 days because of a lack of space. In May, the department released 387 inmates, using a state law known as the Emergency Powers Act that authorizes it to reduce prison overcrowding.
Capacity in state prisons is about 15,000, and on an average day an additional 2,000 convicted offenders are held in county jails waiting for space to become available in a state unit. The cost of holding state inmates in county jails has long been an issue between county officials and the state.
County sheriffs would like higher reimbursements for each inmate they must house. Also, sheriffs have told lawmakers they are now holding more serious offenders than in the past, which creates more danger of violence for deputies, staff and people being held in in jail on minor charges.
Four House bills would require Medicaid to cover more procedures. One House bill would affect businesses that subsidize expenses for employees who leave the state to get an abortion. The bill would require those businesses to also provide 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.
The sponsor said that the bill was meant to discourage attempts to circumvent the strong anti-abortion laws in Arkansas.
HB 1004 would require sex offender registration to include more details about the offender's physical address, such as apartment numbers and suite numbers. It also would require more details about the address of the employer of the sex offender, if he has a job.
The numbering of pre-filed House and Senate bills began with "2" because in each chamber the first bill is traditionally an appropriation to authorize paying the expenses of the session.
Two years ago, HB 1001 appropriated $1.975 million for House expenses and SB 1 appropriated $1.35 million for Senate expenses of the 2021 regular session. They included salaries of legislators and staff, maintenance and operations.
Editor's note: Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Senate Health Committee.